Yoga supporters have long claimed the benefits of the practice, both on the mind and the soul, but many skeptics underlined the lack of scientific studies in the field. Now, a team from Illinois University have shown that even a singulary, 20 minute session of Hatha yoga significantly improved participants’ speed and accuracy on tests of working memory and inhibitory control – two of the most relevant measures of a brain’s focus and ability to retain information. Participants performed significantly better not only than others who had done nothing, but also better than those who practiced vigorous aerobic exercise for the same amount of time.
“Yoga is an ancient Indian science and way of life that includes not only physical movements and postures but also regulated breathing and meditation,” said Neha Gothe, who led the study while a graduate student at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Gothe now is a professor of kinesiology, health and sport studies at Wayne State University in Detroit. “The practice involves an active attentional or mindfulness component but its potential benefits have not been thoroughly explored.”
The yoga session was not really special, consisting of traditional yoga postures, bot sitting and standing, concluding with a meditative posture and calm breathing. So it’s pretty much as simple as do yoga – it’s good for your brain.
“Yoga is becoming an increasingly popular form of exercise in the U.S. and it is imperative to systematically examine its health benefits, especially the mental health benefits that this unique mind-body form of activity may offer,” said Illinois kinesiology and community health professor Edward McAuley, who directs the Exercise Psychology Laboratory where the study was conducted.
Gothe and her colleagues were also surprised to see an improvement in their reaction times and accuracy on cognitive tasks as well.
“It appears that following yoga practice, the participants were better able to focus their mental resources, process information quickly, more accurately and also learn, hold and update pieces of information more effectively than after performing an aerobic exercise bout,” Gothe said. “The breathing and meditative exercises aim at calming the mind and body and keeping distracting thoughts away while you focus on your body, posture or breath. Maybe these processes translate beyond yoga practice when you try to perform mental tasks or day-to-day activities.”
So what is it that causes this improvement, exactly ?
“Enhanced self-awareness that comes with meditational exercises is just one of the possible mechanisms. Besides, meditation and breathing exercises are known to reduce anxiety and stress, which in turn can improve scores on some cognitive tests,” she explained.
The paper is available online.